Paying the piper

TORONTO - For an organist, preserving an instrument’s sound is like maintaining a relationship. It calls for strict attention to atmosphere, communication and a whole lot of listening.

“You try as hard as possible to keep the air in the church as consistent as possible,” said John Paul Farahat, organist at St. Basil’s Church in downtown Toronto. “When you have changes in humidity, when you have changes in temperature, it really affects the pipes because they are all either made of wood or some combina tion of metals.”

In Grade 12, after playing the piano since childhood, Farahat began studying the organ. Now pursuing a masters of music and performance at the University of Toronto, Farahat, 23, has worked with the National Catholic Broadcasting Council’s Daily Mass since 2007.

Farahat took over as the principal organist at St. Basil’s in May 2011, meaning his relationship with the church’s 93-year-old pipe organ had officially become serious.

“What essentially I try to do as the principal organist here is try to maintain it,” said Farahat. “One of the things an organist can do, when you have a pipe organ, is you always make sure, first and foremost, that those expressive pedals are in an open position so that the shutters are opened. Gradual (temperature) changes ... have far less of an effect on how far the instrument goes out of tune.”

This allows air to flow freely around the pipes ensuring that when the temperature inevitably changes in the church it also changes in the boxes that enclose selected pipes.

During the summer months Farahat admits efforts to ensure a constant temperature are often in vain, though it hasn’t discouraged him from trying.

“In a church like this where there is no air conditioning, in the summer you are kind of at the mercy of the weather and the most you can do is just open the windows and hope for the best,” said Farahat. “In the winter (the University of St. Michael’s College’s) heating system is what runs this church and so you have a certain degree of control over the heat.”

But keeping things comfortable is only part of the equation. Like any relationship, the key to preserving an organ’s sound is communication.

“The second way to maintain it, really, it’s the one thing I know a lot of organists have, is a log book (to) record whenever you find something wrong,” said Farahat. “So when the maintenance crew comes in the next time, they look at this book. They don’t look at the organ and say what’s wrong because they would never get the job done... you essentially point them in the right direction.”

Farahat also goes through every note in every stop regularly — at least once between the three to four annual maintenance services.

It’s a practice veteran organ technician Robert Hiller encourages organists to do.

“It’s very important to have more detailed instructions (because it takes) less time to find the problem,” said Hiller, of Alan T. Jackson & Company, which has maintenance contracts for more than 200 organs, including St. Basil’s. “If it is only misfiring the odd time it is difficult to find where the problem is until it happens right in front of your eyes. Sometimes it is just a certain combination of stops that makes the problem happen.”

At an average cost of $500 per fourto five-hour visit, keeping troubleshooting short and sweet is the aim of the game. While many parishes, such as St. Basil’s, hold fixed rate contracts, it is those that try to scrimp and save who often lose out.

“If we don’t go regularly then the list of troubles will take more time and you are spending more money,” said Hiller. “If you don’t maintain your organ regularly, if you are someone who calls only the odd time, then you won’t get that kind of service. We’ll have to bill by the hour.”

St. Peter’s Church on Bathurst Street is a parish without a maintenance contract and it shows. Built in 1927, the open concept church was acoustically designed to maximize the potential of the organ, which has since taken a turn for the worse.

“The organ has been here since the church was built in 1927 and the organ has been very much a part of our tradition,” said Fr. Jim Haley.

“We would love to have it up to par.”

It’s a matter of dollars and cents which prevents the much needed restoration — not to mention a tuning.

“If I had some extra money I would gladly put it into the organ to see if we could build it up,” said Haley. “Right now we have some other priorities in the parish that we have to attend to.”

This is the story for many parishes where a once enchantingly booming organ now screeches off key, if it makes any noise at all. Hiller said full restorations of traditional electro-pneumatic organs, which often means converting them to digital-console organs, costs between $50,000 to $150,000.

Finding a balance between liturgy and performance in music ministry

TORONTO - Those involved with the music ministry at their parish are often faced with a difficulty that comes from the intrinsic duality of their role — how to maintain a balance between the performance aspect of their craft and the importance of being liturgically sound and engaged with your community.

Fr. Ricky Manalo, CSP, is a highly regarded liturgical musician, Paulist priest, teacher and composer. He will be in Toronto Nov. 3 to host an all-day interactive session, “Sing to the Lord: Liturgical Music in Today’s Church,” at downtown Toronto’s St. Peter’s Church examining the dual role.

“The first part of my talk will be focused not on music and not on any pastoral suggestions, but more on the deeper, ecclesial identity of the Church,” said Manalo. “In other words, how do we ground ourselves to first understanding that when we celebrate liturgy it’s a celebration of the whole community.

“From there we can go into some official documents, particularly what emerged out of the second Vatican Council, that called for more full, conscious and active participation.”

Manalo, whose 2007 hymn “That All May Be One in Christ” won the national hymn competition sponsored by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in the United States, feels that the skills and talents of ministers can be used as a way to promote participation during the Mass.

“When I studied as a musician at the Manhattan School of Music, the goal there was art for the sake of art: musica pro musica. Whereas, in liturgy, it’s not art for the sake of art itself, but for the worship of God. All things should point to that,” said Manalo.

“This also doesn’t mean that they should pay less attention to the performative skills that they have already; that’s also important. But, it’s a difference between a liturgy and, say, performing in Carnegie Hall,” he laughs.

Manalo also points to the challenges that come from our secular society, in that we are awash with myriad musical styles and cultural influences. However, these challenges may also yield favourable results.

“The liturgical theologian Anthony Ruff has pointed out that even during the Baroque era, a lot of the musical styles that were sung and/or performed during Mass came from secular styles that were occurring outside of the Church,” said Manalo.

“There will always be various musical styles — whether they be a particular culture, a traditional repertoire that Catholics hold dear or whether they be styles that come from Africa or a generational culture group. What followed after Vatican II was an openness towards various musical styles.”

For more information on Sing to the Lord: Liturgical Music in Today’s Church, contact sbossi@ (tickets are $30).

A church built for Vatican II liturgy

There’s more to the liturgy than which words are spoken when and by whom. There’s more to it than can be captured by any one language, living or dead.

Architect Douglas Cardinal was one of the first to show the post- Vatican II liturgy in a church. As the Second Vatican Council ended, the now world-famous architect of Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization began work on his first internationally recognized masterwork — St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, Alta.

The story of St. Mary’s encapsulates triumphs and tragedies of the Canadian Church against the backdrop of Vatican II ideals. The church was consecrated as a cathedral by the Oblate Archbishop Anthony Jordan of Edmonton in 1968, who attended all four sessions of the ecumenical council in Rome.

Cardinal grew up going to a residential school in the 1940s — St. Joseph’s Convent School in Red Deer. His father was Blackfoot and his mother Metis. He was one of the rare success stories — a smart kid who got top marks, excelled in art and music, studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

He was also the head altar boy at St. Joseph’s and today as he pushes toward 80 years old he can still remember every word of the Latin Mass and can still sing the chants.

Cardinal’s brilliant career almost never happened. He was assaulted on the street as a young man in an ugly racial incident. In the Alberta of the late-1950s, it was naturally the native kid who wound up in jail. Jordan got him a lawyer, and helped get him out of jail.

From there, Cardinal travelled Europe — taking in everything from Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona to the baroque San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by his favourite architect, Francesco Baromini.

That was followed by more architecture studies at the University of Texas and travel through Mexico and the American southwest, where he saw adobe missionary churches that reminded him of one of the great 20th-century masterworks, Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France.

When German Oblate missionary Fr. Werner Merx tapped the young Cardinal to design a new church the priests didn’t know of the young architect’s history with his bishop. Merx stormed off to Edmonton prepared to battle Jordan for the chance to employ this brilliant young architect, not knowing how pleased his fellow Oblate would be to see the young man he saved from jail erect the first post-conciliar church in his diocese.

Merx and Cardinal weren’t just going to design a big building with some pews and a spire. They were going to invent a church based on the liturgy.

“We started by saying, what is the reason for the space?” Cardinal told The Catholic Register. “The altar.”
Merx insisted on a spare, unadorned sanctuary without even a cross. The pastor wanted the altar to be the sole symbol of the real presence, open and accessible to everyone gathered around it.

Every day at 4 p.m. Merx and Cardinal would meet at the church, play organ music and go over Cardinal’s designs. Their instruction manual was Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It took months to come up with the spare, unpolished altar that would dominate the sanctuary.

Cardinal designed a “light canon” — essentially a hole in the roof — over the altar.

“I wanted divine light coming from the altar,” he said. “That’s the sacrifice, the table of sacrifice. It should be the symbol of Christ. So light should emanate from the altar.”

The roof itself became a tent-like baldacchino hovering over the altar. Merx’s last church had burned down, so he wanted this one made of pure masonry and concrete. It was a tall order for a low roof.

“They told me it was impossible, with 81,000 simultaneous calculations to be solved. They said it would take 100 years,” recalled Cardinal.

The walls around the altar were laid out in a spiral form for the sake of acoustics.

“I want the sound of the Church to ring like a cathedral so that when the priest said ‘Dominus vobiscum’ it would go ‘Dominus vobiscum-um-um-um,’ ” he said. “Those beautiful Gregorian chants, I wanted them to sound properly in the church.”

Cardinal rooted his design in the spirit of baroque architecture, with its moving, dynamic forms.

“I felt the Church was better expressed by the Jesuit order, which was the baroque order, which was to bring some drama and power to the forms and shapes,” he said.

The result is something architecture students everywhere study, said Toronto architect Roberto Chiotti.

“Cardinal’s church in Red Deer always comes up as one of the case studies,” said Chiotti. “It’s very influential on the students and some of their designs.”

But Merx and Cardinal’s vision suffered in the post-Vatican II era. Merx was transferred to a northern mission almost as soon as the church was completed.

“Which really broke his heart,” said Cardinal. “He wanted to be there, but he was too liberal for the community.”

Subsequent pastors and parishioners found the design too austere and too far off the beaten path of regular Church architecture.

“No, they don’t get it. They put all those horrible statues in there. They’ve got... ugh!” Cardinal said.

At one point another architect was brought in to remove the baptistry from the entrance, where it had been a symbol of initiation into the church, and to make things a little more conventional. Cardinal tried to sue for the moral rights to his design, but the courts were reluctant to limit the parish’s right to dispose of its property.

When the church was built it stood alone on the horizon — a mysterious and beckoning shape. Today, it’s surrounded by a suburban subdivision with houses and schools. The bell tower still stands above the entrance, but the parish has never commissioned a peel of bells to occupy the trinity of open spaces left for them in the wall.

Despite all these disappointments and compromises, St. Mary’s made its mark.

“It’s captured in any historical anthology or survey of Canadian architecture. It would likely be in any major anthology of Church architecture because it’s so unique in its form,” said Chiotti. “Cardinal came along just at that moment when we were trying to articulate Vatican II and what does it mean. It’s a major transformation. He was a leader in trying to give tangible, meaningful expression to the documents as they would manifest themselves in Church architecture. It was very courageous and bold.”

St. Hildegard’s living light

TORONTO - St. Hildegard of Bingen was a mystic prophet who challenged the status quo of her medieval society with her vast written legacy of medical and theological texts, musical repertoire and a penchant for challenging her superiors in the Church. One could be tempted to argue that Hildegard was the original feminist.

Now, in addition to her being named a Doctor of the Church on Oct. 7 (only the fourth woman to receive the recognition), she can also add film and theatre star to her impressive resume.

Linn Maxwell, internationally recognized mezzo-soprano, is coming to Toronto on Oct. 23 and 24 with her one-woman show, Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light, which has also been recently released as a film adaption. The show tells the story of Hildegard and her mystic visions which ultimately led her to leave a profound mark on the history of the Church.

“She (Hildegard) kind of directed the whole project — I am convinced that this wonderful saint has been behind this the whole time,” said Maxwell of her show, which has now reached audiences across the globe. “When I was writing it... I always felt like there was this little voice behind me saying, ‘no, just tell my story, be truthful, and be chronological.’ ”

In her production, Maxwell has interspersed the life story of St. Hildegard with her original compositions, which she sings and accompanies on traditional medieval instruments.

“It was a journey... I chose the chronological order of things, and I chose her words as much as possible,” said Maxwell. “The first hurdle was choosing the seven songs that I use in the play — the music should carry the action forward.

“The next challenge was to do dialogue and then a song, and then dialogue again so that it’s seamless and organic.”

Born into a noble family in present-day Germany, Hildegard’s parents had a religious disposition and promised their child to the service of God. Invested with the habit of St. Benedict, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, she was appointed superior of her order in 1136, eventually moving the order to Bingen on the left bank of the Rhine.

In her journey to capture the spirit of Hildegard’s story, Maxwell found herself in Bingen, Germany, and eventually Disibodenberg where the ruins of Hildegard’s first monastery are located.

“It was just incredibly amazing. I was there all alone — I think she arranged it so that there would be no one else there. I stayed two or three hours until it got dark and I finally had to leave,” said Maxwell. “I just felt her presence... I felt like, ‘ah, I’ve gotten in touch with her.’ ”

The challenge in performing the show comes not only from Maxwell’s embodiment of such a powerful and unusual woman, but from the interpretation of musical texts that are devoid of rhythmic notation.

“The Sequentia recordings were somewhat of an inspiration for me,” said Maxwell, who is a colleague of Ben Bagby, director of the Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music. “You go with the flow of the phrase,” Maxwell added of her own interpretations.

Hildegard’s music holds a certain relevance today, as it defied conventional structures of the time to some extent.

“Hildegard was unusual. She was an extraordinarily learned person at the time,” said John Haines, a professor of history and culture at the University of Toronto and a scholar of medieval music at U of T’s Centre for Medieval Studies.

“It is chant — it looks like plain chant in that it’s just one melody, but, generally speaking, compared to... most of the chants that survive from that time period, it’s very wide in range,” said Haines. “Her music is very compelling... it’s difficult to perform too.”

Haines notes that only about one per cent of the population at the time would have been able to write, so the fact that Hildegard’s compositions survive, and are written by a woman, is somewhat remarkable.

Additionally, he points out that Hildegard embraced unusual choices in modality and in the textual and musical relationship, where she employs the use of melisma more than her contemporaries may have done.

“Hildegard tended to favour this one mode on E, which features a half-step from the first tone to the second — it’s very easy to recognize,” said Haines. “Which for us gives a kind of eerie sound to her music, but it’s a very specific type of sound that makes it even more idiomatic.”

Maxwell said Hildegard’s message is “more urgent today than ever before,” and perhaps so; her position as Doctor of the Church means that her theological contributions are still teachable and important today.

“She was a trumpet, proclaiming the word of God,” said Maxwell of her muse and inspiration. “When I’m done, hopefully the audience will know Hildegard.”

For more on the Toronto dates for Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light or to purchase the film, go to

A reworked Sister Act still packed with laughter

TORONTO - Sister Act, on stage at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre, will awaken your urge to boogie like it’s 1978.

In Philadelphia, we find wannabe star Deloris Van Cartier in thigh-high purple boots and a short leopard print dress. She’s just seen her married lover murder a man and now, under witness protection, the police have hidden her in the last place anyone would think to look — a convent.
Whoopi Goldberg, one of the musical’s producers, who first played Deloris on-screen, made Sister Act the film popular in 1992. And it is with this memory that many theatregoers walked into the performance. But with Ta’Rea Campbell as Deloris on stage, it’s easy to forget anyone else donned the black and white habit.

Campbell’s transformation from nightclub diva to divine singer was believable, while never losing the boisterous (in the best sense) personality of her character.

“She lacks a bit of self-control,” Campbell said about Deloris in an interview with The Catholic Register. “Not in a bad way. Just in a way that she only knows how to be one person and that’s herself. And sometimes, we as adults get to modify our behaviour when we’re in certain situations, and I don’t think Deloris Van Cartier is able to do that.”

It’s this freedom of spirit that comically conflicts with the convent’s Mother Superior, played by Hollis Resnik.

“I have to embody this very stern, rigid, pious nun,” said Resnik. “There’s a stoicism about her, there’s a strong belief system in her.”

An entire musical number is devoted to Mother Superior attempting to put Deloris in her place. Mother is traditional where Deloris likes change, stiff where Deloris is flexible, quiet where Deloris is loud and conservative where Deloris is anything but.

Though the characters are butting heads, the actors are in sync, finishing each other’s sentences during the interview.

“Deloris Van Cartier would like to take a bedazzler and bedazzle the habit if she could,” said Campbell. “Maybe I can jazz this outfit up a little bit,” she said mimicking her character’s attitude.

“It doesn’t cry out for accessories,” replied Resnik instantly in Mother Superior-mode.

The cast has great chemistry, but the music remains the main draw. If patrons expect songs from the movie, they will be slightly disappointed. Though productions such as this attract patrons who hope it will be a nostalgia-fest based on the film, the audience will still get value for their dollar because the show includes an original score by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater. Hits such as “My God” from the film have been replaced with “Take Me To Heaven” where the nuns belt out cheeky lines, such as “I’ll take any vow, just take me now” and “I’ll get on my knees, just take me please.”

In “Sunday Morning Fever,” the sisters encourage the faithful to “shake it like you’re Mary Magdalene.”

Breakout musical performances also include Kinglsey Leggs as Curtis Jackson, Deloris’s mobster boyfriend, singing “When I Find My Baby.” Effortlessly switching from a sinister to a sweet tone, he promises to never let his baby go. Jackson’s clueless henchmen, played by Charles Barksdale, Todd A. Horman and Ernie Pruneda, also deliver a completely satisfying performance when they brainstorm via song ways to tempt the celibate nuns. In “Lady In The Long Black Dress” they promise to give the sisters something to confess.

Opening night was filled with plenty of laughs, including from the nuns in the audience. But there is a take home message in Deloris’s unexpected journey from sin to redemption, from loneliness to discovering the joy of sisterhood.

“Just be good to each other, no matter what the circumstances are,” said Resnik. “There’s always something to be learned and found in every relationship.”

No matter your religious beliefs, said Campbell, “It’s important to be good hearted, it’s important to respect other people, respect their journey, respect their path (and) respect their soul.” Amen, sister.

Putting Jeremiah’s journey to music

TORONTO - The idea to capture the voice of “the weeping prophet” Jeremiah came to composer Peter Togni back when he was 19 and listening to Jeremiah’s lamentations as composed by Orlando di Lasso.

“It just blew me away, and I had this idea tucked way in the back of my brain that maybe one day I would end up writing that,” said Togni.

“No matter what religion you are or aren’t, the message of Jeremiah, to me, is a universal one. It’s really about somebody who tells the truth, and is disregarded. That’s the whole piece, in a way.”

In his work Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae, Togni, who was recently the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth medal, has charted the journey of the prophet in a four-movement concerto for bass clarinet and choir, the third of which will be showcased during Toronto’s Nuit Blanche art festival on Sept. 29-30.

“It’s the personal journey of Jeremiah through various stages of his experience of being a prophet. Imagine waking up one day and discovering that you’re called by God to be a prophet; it’s a rather difficult thing to have to assume,” said Jeff Reilly, renowned bass clarinetist, who is on both the original recording with the Elmer Iseler Singers and will be performing with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale during Nuit Blanche.

The composition has a profound effect on Reilly, as Togni (a long-time personal friend and musical collaborator) wrote the piece for Reilly specifically.

“For him to write something for me was probably a very natural extension for him of our working relationship, and, for me, probably the greatest gift I’ve ever received from any human being in my entire life was that piece,” said Reilly.

“I still look at it as an act of grace — that that piece exists.”

The four movements of the concerto act as a vehicle for Jeremiah’s suffering, contemplation and eventual acceptance of the task set before him. Togni deftly weaves the Latin text of the choir with the bass clarinet as the voice of Jeremiah — both areas work as a counterpart to the other to advance the plot and emphasize the prophet’s journey.

“In one way, it’s a virtuosic concerto… it stems from the early meanings of the word concerto which means to play together,” said Togni. “Sometimes the choir is kind of like a Greek chorus, like an architect of the space. The bass clarinet is Jeremiah, speaking in that space.”

Togni also notes that the concerto is reflective of a 21st-century paradigm, wherein he is able to allow Reilly a great element of creative control in his own right.

“The piece is 75 per cent composed, and 25 per cent improvised. Jeff is 25 per cent improvised, so he feels things in the moment. It’s kind of as if I would write a concerto for Miles Davis,” said Togni. “There’s an awful lot of trust.”

“That’s a hard thing to do,” said Reilly of the juxtaposition of sung phrase, to the instrumental evocation of Jeremiah. “They’re singing words… and they have a certain way of working and thinking as an ensemble. There is a real challenge there.

“It’s an extraordinary piece of music, and it’s an amazing performance piece.”

The original recording of Lamentatio was on the renowned ECM label, and was the first work by a Canadian composer to appear there. At Nuit Blanche, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale (which was founded by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, artistic director) is working the movement into their set titled Oblivion, which is an exploration of silence.

“The third movement is Silentio, the one that I’m playing this weekend, and that’s his acceptance of grace,” said Reilly. “It’s a very powerful and a very beautiful movement. He takes refuge in the silence of the Lord.”

Lamentatio will also be featured at the opening gala of the Winnipeg New Music Festival in January, where it will be performed again by the Elmer Iseler Singers.

“The truth of the matter is that we’re all called upon to certain roles in our life that we don’t necessarily want to take on. But, by the grace of things beyond yourself, you have found yourself in a position to take on responsibilities, and assume a part of yourself that is bigger than the way you looked at yourself before,” said Reilly.

“It’s a beautiful story and it’s something that I think we can all relate to in a personal way. We all have to take on roles that we don’t particularly want to.”

For more information on the Nuit Blanche performance, see

Our addiction to oil fuels a new slave trade, author argues

The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude by Andrew Nikiforuk (Greystone and the David Suzuki Foundation, 282 pages, $29.95, hard cover).


“All energy issues are moral ones.” So declares investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk in his latest salvo against the culture of petroleum. And he is right.

Nikiforuk, whose book Tar Sands won the Rachel Carson Book Award and became a national bestseller, is one of the most public and best informed critics of Canada’s fossil fuel addiction, and all the social and ecological despoliation that goes with it.

In The Energy of Slaves he weaves a yarn about the transition from slave labour to fossil fuels in the 19th century, suggesting that enslaved people yielded their place and industrial power to enslaved resources. Moreover, as a globalized society we have become shackled to a petroleum-based economy that diminishes both our planetary health and the human spirit.

While the first part of Nikiforuk’s argument is a bit incongruous — equating slaves to carbon-based fuels is both logically and morally murky — the second part concerning our addiction to oil and its moral consequences is argued forcefully and well.

For Nikiforuk, unfettered demand for cheap oil is quintessentially a moral issue. Ecological side-effects of its extraction and consumption — from contaminated watersheds to species extinction and climate change — demand an abolition movement on an international scale.

Nikiforuk quotes University of Manitoba energy expert Vaclav Smil regarding America’s profligate use of oil. In light of the fact that the United States eats up twice as much oil as the wealthiest European nations, Smil asks whether Americans are therefore twice as happy as the Danes or twice as rich as the French? Are they twice as educated as the Germans, or twice as secure as the Dutch? For both Smil and Nikiforuk, the answers constitute one big fat no.

In terms of child mortality and educational achievement, the United States falls way behind its European counterparts. It has significantly higher rates of obesity, suicide, murder and incarceration. Moreover, studies reveal Americans are less happy now than they were a half-century ago, despite their oil-consuming lifestyle.

In short, consuming more oil does not necessarily lead to a better life.

Interestingly, Nikiforuk turns to St. Benedict for one antidote to an oil-consuming free-for-all. Benedict not only created a new community based on prayer, learning and labour, but codified this in his Rule so that future Benedictine communities might flourish. They still do flourish by ensuring the common purpose of monks and nuns is more important than the things they consume as individuals. Nikiforuk appeals to a 1,500-year-old morally and religiously grounded movement to address our current oil-drenched malaise.

For Nikiforuk, taking a cue from philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, the world awaits more Benedicts to create loving and flourishing communities, celebrating the spiritual richness and dignity of non-mechanized, non-oil-based work — a way of life that values civility and spiritual maturity.

Curiously, Nikiforuk, while appealing to a Christian moral argument, does not mention Bishop Luc Bouchard, the former bishop of St. Paul, Alta., which included the oil sands. In a  prophetic 2009 pastoral letter, Bouchard carefully summarized the history and social and ecological effects of the oil sands. The bishop saw this oil development running counter to both Catholic social teaching and the message of the Gospel.

“I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca oil sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. The proposed future development of the oil sands constitutes a serious moral problem. Environmentalists and members of First Nations and Métis communities who are challenging government and industry to adequately safeguard the air, water and boreal forest eco-systems of the Athabasca oil sands region present a very strong moral argument, which I support,” Bouchard wrote in 2009. “The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified. Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken.”

If, as St. Benedict claimed, to work is to pray, perhaps to work for ecological integrity and the breaking of our petroleum chains is one of the most poignant types of prayer we can offer at this critical time in our careening planet’s history.

(Scharper is a religion and ecology professor at the University of Toronto.)

Film seeks to find hope in hopelessness of Argentine slum

TORONTO - Sacrifice and temptation are common among priests in the fictional shantytown of Villa Maria in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. But director Pablo Trapero is intent on art imitating life in White Elephant.

The film focuses on two priests of the Third World Church who are somewhat isolated from the larger Church body because they live and work in slums. They are devoted to helping Argentina’s poor like their predecessors in the 1960s and ’70s, but do not always live the holiest of lives.

“I like to put the camera in their lives because they are unknown,” said Trapero, who was in Toronto mid-September for the screening of White Elephant at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is in Spanish, with English subtitles.

Though he emphasizes the movie is fictional, Trapero felt it was important to give the priests, social workers and numerous others working a space to show what it means to exist in the slums of his homeland.

The film gets its title from a real White Elephant, a still-unfinished hospital in the Argentinian slum known as the Hidden City. The hospital was meant to be the largest of its kind in all of South America when on-again off-again construction began in the 1930s, but now the homeless turn to it for shelter. For Trapero, the hospital symbolizes “this idea of the dream that became a nightmare.”

This theme of lost hope is not limited to architecture, but is perpetually emphasized in the priests’ lives. Fr. Julián (Ricardo Darín) is what a Third World priest should be: dedicated and unselfish. Coming from a well-off family, he chose to spend years living with the people he ministers to.

“He has the luxury to decide to be poor,” Trapero said.

Fr. Julián uses his influence with the higher-ups of the Church to try to gain resources for the people in the slum. To do so, he must travel to the nearby urban centre, demonstrating that the divide between rich and very poor is a short car ride away.

Back in the slums, he tries to diplomatically navigate a world of warring drug lords and police that divide his flock and endanger the youth he tries so hard to protect. But after years in the slums, he is ill and, now facing his own mortality, struggles to suppress feelings of bitterness and anger.

Fr. Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) is the younger, cooler priest, originally from France, who the youth admire and who crosses a line Fr. Julián believes priests shouldn’t in a dangerous slum. Fr. Nicolás comes to Villa Maria after a violent incident in the Amazon. He suffers from survivor’s guilt and believes he doesn’t deserve God’s love. Though he turns to Fr. Julián, a long-time friend and his confessor, for spiritual guidance, he also turns to social worker Luciana (Martina Gusman) for physical comfort.

According to Trapero, Fr. Nicolás follows intuition more than rules and thinks too much of his needs, rather than the needs of others.

“You know when you should do something, but you decide not to do it,” Trapero said in reference to Fr. Nicolás.

But White Elephant is nothing like the 1983 American mini-series The Thorn Birds, where a priest is torn between his ecclesiastical goals and his love of a woman. Fr. Nicolás feels no guilt about his relations with Luciana, said Trapero.

“They are trying to be close and support each other in their life, but they are not pretending they will have a family.”

Trapero’s film does not hold priests to a holier-than-thou standard, but portrays them as men who chose a difficult vocation and who deal with it in their own imperfect ways.

Trapero shines light on life in all its misery. The scenes in White Elephant appear as if they were filmed slowly, when really life happens in such a steady pace. And as a result, the film is dull at times, like the monotony of life can be, yet the scenes of sorrow, death and passion are more prolonged and pronounced.

“Love is what they are trying to understand, not just love about God or about a woman,” Trapero said. “Everything they do is moved by love.” It is love that has Fr. Julián and Fr. Nicolás risking their lives for the youth of Villa Maria.

“It’s easy to be a martyr. To be a hero too,” said Fr. Julián. “The hardest thing is working day after day knowing your work is meaningless.”

And that is the question that lingers once the film is finished: In the face of dreams turned to nightmares, is their work meaningless or is the fact that there are priests who continue to work tirelessly in the slums hope enough?

Prisoners' Wives looks to spark conversation on prison families

It may be the world of make believe, but the British drama series Prisoners’ Wives is all about a harsh, complex reality. The producers of the BBC show and people who work with prisoners and their families hope the series sparks a conversation about the social cost of incarceration.

“When a man or a woman goes to jail the whole family does the time. It changes everything in the family dynamic,” Deacon Mike Walsh of the Friends of Dismas told The Catholic Register.

The Friends of Dismas, an ecumenical ministry for ex-prisoners in Toronto, is launching a new support team dedicated to working with families of those on the inside.

That makes Prisoners’ Wives “very timely,” Walsh said.

Prisoners’ Wives has been picked up in Canada by Vision TV and airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. It tackles the stories of four women with loved ones who are imprisoned — Lou, who has tried to escape poverty by selling drugs; Francesca, who has risen to fabulous wealth on the criminal entrepreneurship of her husband and now loses it all; middle-class, middle-aged Harriet, who finds herself bewildered and isolated when her son goes to jail; and pregnant Gemma, who gradually learns her husband is not who she thought he was.

The women find themselves on a journey of discovery about themselves and their relationships while the men inside struggle to keep up. Both the prisoners and their wives have to answer basic questions.

The family dynamic of prison life hasn’t often made it to either the big or the little screen. While there are plenty of cop shows and prison dramas about the lives of criminals and workings of the criminal justice system, there are no great films about wives, children and parents left behind.

“In popular entertainment, TV drama, have people thought about the plight of prisoners’ wives before? No. Uh-uh,” said executive producer Rebecca de Souza. “It’s delightful, because we could be the first one’s to do it.

“There are a lot of spiritual journeys prisoners have to go through. (Harriet’s son) Gavin goes on a pretty misguided spiritual journey. He thinks it’s a spiritual journey but it really isn’t.”

But the writers, directors and actors had no easy, well established film clichés to fall back on. Instead they had to do hundreds of hours of research talking to prison families, chaplains, guards, social workers and prisoners.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for POPS (the British charity Partners of Prisoners) and other organizations to engage with and influence the public dialogue as well as making the public aware of the support services we offer,” said POPS policy and research officer Rebecca Cheung. “(The show) raised a number of key issues such as the bullying of children of prisoners and the diversity of individuals affected by imprisonment.”

The show has been successful enough in the UK to be picked up for a second season and POPS has noticed much more conversation in British media and on social media about prison issues from the point of view of families.

“Families of prisoners are generally speaking invisible,” said Cheung. “Prison life in the UK conversely receives quite a lot of attention.”

Public dialogue is obsessed with punishment but ignores social costs, said de Souza.

“Is he being punished enough? Is he being rehabilitated enough? Should they be allowed televisions in their cells? We’re all very interested in those subjects,” she said. “What people don’t talk about is the massive community around him that is equally affected.”

Walsh for one hopes the drama might prick up a few ears to the real spiritual needs of real prison families.

“(Imprisonment) has a ripple effect we often never think about, and it is a time when the parish community needs to come together in support,” Walsh said.

Music ministry perfect fit for folk hobbyist

Women at Carmelina Home find joy in the 

Every Wednesday night, Deacon Philip Allard drives through rush-hour traffic across Toronto to Carmelina Home, a long-term care residential program run by the Passionist Sisters for women recovering from addiction, substance abuse and emotional issues.

Allard takes with him his guitar.

A social worker by trade and a folk musician by hobby, Allard joined the diaconate 12 years ago and has held a ministry position at Carmelina Home for seven years, playing his guitar and leading a sing-song with the women who live there.
Before that, he dabbled in ministry work at a hospital and at Providence Centre, but found those placements to be too similar to his profession.

“I was looking for a unique and different experience,” Allard said.

Allard admits he didn’t know what a deacon was before he looked into becoming one himself. He did, however, feel compelled to do more.

And his ministry at Carmelina Home has turned out to be the perfect fit for Allard, who on top of playing the guitar has performed in community theatre, even playing lead roles in several Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.

“I didn’t go there with any specific agenda,” Allard said of how his ministry at Carmelina Home came to be one of music.

“I thought music would be nice, (and) they really took to (it). I’m building my repertoire and having a lot of fun.”

Carmelina Home boasts a strict and intensive two-year program, so Allard tries to keep Wednesday evenings light and enjoyable. The songs are not strictly religious, though Allard said he tries to pick ones with uplifting and positive spiritual messages.

One crowd favourite is “Lean on Me.”

“It’s not a religious song, but it’s very inspiring and encouraging.”

But he said the most encouraging songs of all are ones that involve everyone.

“Musically, it’s always nice when you’re including other people,” Allard said. “Some of the women really like to sing so it gives me an opportunity to throw in a couple harmonies.”

For Allard, one of his best experiences at Carmelina Home is singing with the women for their annual gala several years ago.

“All the women there really wanted an opportunity to sing, with me leading the song,” Allard said. “Just the excitement in the home the weeks leading up to that, that’s probably the most memorable.

“It seemed to be a very happy time for the women, to share joy in that experience.”

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New musical Mass settings remain a work in progress

Sept. 25, 2011 marked the launch of the newly minted musical settings that followed the complete liturgical overhaul of the Roman missal.

In parishes around the archdiocese of Toronto, congregants were greeted with the small, floppy Celebrate in Song hymnal — a book that contains three freshly commissioned musical settings of the Mass. Much like the often overlapping of the spoken “and with your spirit” with the erstwhile “and also with you,” the musical settings presented congregants with a fresh challenge — adapting responses that had been previously learned en rote to a completely different, and sometimes complex, vocal line.

“I think that for people, change is death. Change is a metaphor for death. Nobody likes change,” said Peter Togni.

Togni is one of Canada’s most noted composers, and his choral works are heard in parishes across the world. Having set the Mass to music before, Togni provides an interesting view on the musical tradition that some congregants are still adapting to.

“I think the language that they’re using, in many cases, is more elegant and more directly translated from the original Latin, which goes back to what Paul VI really wanted,” said Togni.

“But, I understand the paradox, because in some ways there’s kind of a wooden link to Latin for some people — the sacrilization of Latin, almost, just for its own sake and I understand that this gets in the way of ecumenism for some people. But, from an artistic standpoint, setting the text to those words is in some ways easier and prettier, you know? ‘Lord, God of Hosts’ is easier than ‘Lord, God of Power and Might.’ I like that from a purely artistic standpoint.”

However, the adaptation, despite what may seem a more poetic version, hasn’t necessarily lent itself in all cases to the accompanying musical line. Thus, there lies an imperfect synthesis of text and music which is crucial to the participation of the congregants.

“One of them that I’ve heard, I find very awkward,” said Togni. “In the congregation that I go to now, the congregation doesn’t sing very much with one of the Mass parts because there’s so much for them to do that I find it’s overwhelming for them, and frankly, most people don’t sing.

“I think it’s the integration with the music and that text,” Togni said of what may be the inherent problem with the adjustment to the changes.

“I think different composers might have done different things with that text. Not that the text is perfect… you can get in sort of a dualistic all or nothing thinking — this is totally right, that’s totally wrong. I don’t think you can do that.”

Togni does note that the textual changes certainly serve to unite the Church across the country.

“You’re talking about universality, right? The beautiful thing about the new text, if we’re asked, is, for the French they always say ‘avec votre esprit.’ We now say, ‘and with your spirit,’ but the French have been saying it for years. So, it links us up with them,” said Togni.

Looking forward, Togni suggests that perhaps the music will adopt a more Gregorian tradition and create a solid chant-like structure that would accommodate and highlight the textual changes.

“Even if you read the Vatican documents, the chant is supposed to have lots of room. We had an opportunity to write an English setting that I think could have been more people friendly and more chant-like,” said Togni.

“No matter what you do to ‘people of goodwill,’ it’s hard to set. But, then, English is cumbersome anyway,” he laughs. “I get the sense that there’s something sort of artificial with what they ended up with.”

It’s not entirely unsuccessful, though. In particular, the Angeles “Agnus Dei” has been particularly well received by congregations that Togni’s witnessed, and musically well executed.

Despite that, perhaps the root of any musical problem in the liturgy lies with what could be described as a lagging musical culture in the Catholic tradition.

“Church choir attendance is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, in some places,” said Togni.

“In our culture, we’re not a singing people. We’re just not… I think we need to find a Mass setting that’s more people friendly, melodically; simpler rhythmically. Let’s face it — not many people sing any more.”

Another factor of the tradition that could be remedied is a less performance-like aspect to the melodic line, which would allow the cantor to interact more thoroughly with the congregants, some of whom may be averse to singing entirely, he said.

“In the Gloria, for example, I don’t know why there isn’t more refrain for the people and then the cantor or the choir can do the rest of it,” said Togni.

“It’s just so much easier. If you’re going to have the entire text, then you better make it singer friendly, and it’s not,” said Togni, who notes that some of the song selections in Celebrate in Song lend themselves well to congregant participation.

Hopefully, the new settings will entrench themselves in the musical tradition. That, or adapt to what the congregants need.

“What is that Latin phrase? ‘Lex orandi, Lex credendi’:  the law of prayer is the law of belief — what we say in prayer expresses what we believe. That’s really the crux of it,” said Togni.

“It doesn’t sound like an entirely successful experiment, artistically, so far. Not yet.”

A Dutchman’s love of organs is transplanted to Canada

Klaas Bos, the founder and owner of the Classical Organ Centre in Norwich, Ont., first fell in love with the instrument in his native Holland.

“When I was back in Holland, I immigrated (to Canada) in 1989, I got interested in organs. A lot of times, like on a Saturday afternoon, we’d go to an organ dealer and play a couple songs,” Bos told The Catholic Register.

While there, he got to know an organ dealer who, being wheelchair bound, would ask Klaas to assist him with deliveries and in fixing small parts.

“I got acquainted with the organs, like the ‘guts’ side of it,” said Bos.

After moving to Canada, Bos wanted to get back in the organ business, and decided to start up a market for European-style organs.
“I bought myself a ticket, went back to Holland and met with seven of the dealers that I knew personally and I knew wouldn’t ‘pull the skin over my nose,’ ” laughs Bos.

So, in 1992, the Classical Organ Centre was born, with an emphasis on the Content brand of instruments — a make of pipe organ from the Netherlands that was not common in the Canadian market.

“It was not known here, so this was a big step for me to do,” said Bos.

“Obviously, trying to market something that people know is a lot easier than trying to market something that people don’t know about. But, I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to stick to my guns.’ ”

That attitude has paid off, as Classical Organ now exclusively sells the Content brand, a move Bos feels secures his company a certain niche in the organ industry.

“The capabilities that are in the Content organs, they go far beyond what any other organ in the industry can do at this moment, especially with the new Cantata series,” said Bos. “Everything is totally adjustable.”

The Content brand, while digital, allows for a user-friendly set up that can be easily modified to suit the needs of the setting or player. The style of play can be adjusted to suit different voicing, such as a more European-style Baroque sound to a Romantic sound, from a symphonic pipe organ to a cathedral pipe organ.

Additionally, the Classical Organ Centre will also accommodate existing manual pipe organs by creating a hybrid instrument — the melding of some the original pipe work with an electric instrument so that both components can act together.

“We set it up for the customer — we ask them what do they like, where do they want to be. From there we follow up a bunch of times to see if that’s exactly where they want it,” said Bos.

“For all these extra features and options, the price doesn’t go up.”

From a performance standpoint, Bos also notes that the sheer adaptability of the Content organ can allow the player a multitude of different musical experiences that he may not have previously been able to have.

“When I started, I was always a more Romantic-style player,” said Bos. “Now, because it’s just a matter of hitting a button and you have a totally different organ, I’m getting more interested in Baroque music and symphonic music.

“Because it’s on here, I practise with it and see the value of the different organs.”

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Justus George Lawler defends popes, outs critics

Were the Popes Against the Jews?: Tracking the Myths and Confronting the Ideologues by Justus George Lawler (Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 405 pages, hardcover, $38.99.)

Any book that attacks another book, especially if the target has been controversial and has burrowed under a few skins, walks a tightrope. The aggressor risks coming off as defensive and paranoid — ultimately lending credence to his prey.
Justus George Lawler’s Were the Popes Against the Jews? suffers from no such shortfall. In nearly 400 dense, carefully argued and eloquent pages, Lawler delivers a jeremiad against David Kertzer’s 2001 book The Popes Against the Jews, a book that styled itself as a scathing indictment of modern pontiffs. Kertzer gave us an image of the popes as gleeful anti-Semites who paved the road to Hitler’s gas chambers and even helped deliver the goods.
Kertzer’s book made a lot of people squirm. It quoted one modern pope publicly calling Jews “dogs.” Two other modern pontiffs are portrayed referring to Judaism as “Satan’s synagogue.” According to Kertzer, at the beginning of the 20th century, another pope refused to save the life of a Jew accused of ritual murder, despite knowing the man was innocent. Only a decade before the rise of Hitler, it is alleged another pope supported priests who called for the extermination of all the Jews in the world.
The Popes Against the Jews was hailed in the secular press and has been translated into nine languages. It also spawned a veritable cottage industry of similarly themed works slamming the Vatican, including A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (2003) and Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell (2008).
Lawler’s response is a relentless carpet-bombing. Rather than being “America’s foremost expert on the modern history of the Vatican’s relations with the Jews” (as Lawler dryly quotes from Kertzer’s own web site), Kertzer is presented as guilty of a litany of literary and scholarly sins: Omissions, doctoring of texts, truncations, “slanted” and “intentional” mistranslations, at least one “whole-cloth fabrication,” factual errors and various instances of “shocking rhetorical subterfuge” that approach the “wearisome.” There’s even Kertzer’s “bewildering” grammar. As if that isn’t enough, Kertzer is accused of a general proneness to hyperbole, non-sequiturs and mind reading, which he exercises “when (he) is attempting to clinch an otherwise implausible argument.”
In his more caustic moments, Lawler hears “a Monty Python voice” in reading Kertzer, and says the author, in places, “cannot but evoke Charlie Chaplin.” All of which “raises question of whether Kertzer actually saw the text of documents he keeps referring to or whether he lifted the information — as proved to be true — from secondary sources.”
Lawler can be plodding and pedantic but his attack is careful and does not deviate from Kertzer’s presumably anti-Jewish popes; their deriding Jews as “dogs” and the Jewish religion as the “synagogue of Satan” under Pius IX; their approval of blood libels and ritual murder during the reigns of Leo XIII and Pius X; and their emboldening of the exterminators of Jews under Pius XI and Pius XII (also considered is Benedict XVI, to a lesser degree).
Lawler does betray a defensiveness when he firmly pronounces that popes publicly calling Jews dogs is “a well-established myth.” But he then feels the need to add that at one time, Jews called Samaritans dogs; St. Paul referred to gentiles as dogs; the mishnaic rabbis called Christians dogs; and the ruling classes have for centuries referred to riff-raff or the mob as dogs. Why the other examples if the first never happened?
Examples of Kertzer’s supposed shoddiness abound in Lawler’s account. While serving as a papal envoy to Poland in 1921 the future Pope Pius XI “was not only guilty of perversely failing to envision the slaughter of millions of Jews two decades later, but he was also guilty of complicity in that slaughter.”
The duplicity of Leo XIII in ritual murder “is entirely of Kertzer’s making.”
Lawler quotes a historian who found that the vast majority of uprisings against Jews occurred in predominantly Protestant towns, while later in Russia, “it was the czarists not the papists who safeguarded the blood libel.”
The fact that Kertzer is preoccupied with Jews does not mean that every seemingly negative expression by anyone connected to the Church represents an attack on them, Lawler argues. Neither does it mean that Jews were the intended objects of the evil wrath of the pope.
Lawler, a liberal Catholic, emphasizes that nothing in his book is primarily (italics his) about correcting blunders and distortions. Neither is it about refuting serious errors of fact. Rather, Kertzer is motivated by a personal, obsessive, “almost pathological antipathy to these popes.” As one reviewer supportive of Lawler put it, Kertzer and his admirers “are endeavouring to replace an authentic historical narrative with an ideologically driven polemic.”
Lawler makes a convincing case in debunking Kertzer.
(Csillag is a freelance writer in Toronto.)